This year, Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany launched a major initiative to push for new approaches to COVID-19 treatments. Bringing together over 140 researchers from 30 groups and 15 different countries, the Covid19-NMR initiative is one of the most expansive scientific alliances to fight against the global pandemic. They aim to treat COVID-19 by discovering new virus molecules, or “drug targets,” which are sensitive to drugs we already use for other diseases. Last month, Dr. Anna Wacker and Dr. Julia Weigand, joined by Dr. Harald Schwalbe and over 50 other researchers, published an expansive study examining a potential new type of drug target: virus-related genetic material called RNA.
Typically, antiviral drugs fight against viral proteins. To produce different kinds of proteins, cells must first read their DNA and create a template out of genetic material known as RNA. This template can then be translated into proteins by other components in the cell. These scientists believe that by targeting the RNA directly instead of the viral proteins, it may be possible to treat the viral infection before any dangerous symptoms occur. Additionally, drugs may be able to target the RNA more specifically than proteins due to the unique shapes formed by RNA. These RNA shapes, or “structures,” are unique to each virus since each viral protein is different. In this case, 15 unique SARS-CoV-2 RNA structures were studied using an advanced chemistry technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Much like magnetic resonance imaging (also known as MRI), these scientific instruments can detect incredibly small molecular shapes.
These 15 structures were chosen because the scientists knew that the corresponding RNA molecules are important for viral replication processes. They express confidence that these structures would be excellent targets for new drugs and therapies. The group’s next steps are to move forward with drug screening, a process which uses computers to test thousands of potential drugs against these target RNA structures. There is immense promise in combining this approach with conventional drugs targeting viral proteins as the Covid-19 NMR group continues pushing the limits of drug therapies for COVID-19.
This study was a major collaboration between Dr. Anna Wacker, a researcher at the Institute for Organic Chemistry and Chemical Biology in Germany; Dr. Julia Weigand, a professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt; Dr. Harald Schwalbe, corresponding author and a professor at the Institute for Organic Chemistry and Chemical Biology; and 60 other scientists from seven institutions.
Managing Correspondent: Koby Ljunggren
Original Article: Secondary structure determination of conserved SARS-CoV-2 RNA elements by NMR spectroscopy. Nucleic Acids Research.
Image Credit: Pixabay